Pension Reform Awaits Landmark Ruling And/Or Referendum

I know this is starting to look a bit like Groundhog Day, but I’m afraid it cannot be helped. As of tomorrow Slovene labour unions led by Dušan Semolič will be collecting 40 000 signatures necessary to hold a referendum on the recently passed pension reform.


Wars are not won in the battlefields but in the temples – Sun Tzu (Constitutional court, source)

So we will have not one but two referendum bids, the other one trying to kill the law on menial work. While both laws are a part of “reform legislation” the pension reform is obviously crucial, which is why the government is doing everything in its power to impede this latest referendum. And with good reason too, as the unions made it abundantly clear that they will draw no punches in this fight. As a result both sides are now tangled into a complicated multi-sided tug-of-war where a whole lot of players who have their own agendas might get sacrificed as pawns in a much larger game called The Relative Stability of Public Finances.

In fact it is quite possible that some sacrifices have already been made. The one thing PM Borut Pahor and labour minister Ivan Svetlik must avoid at all cost is to make the referendum on pension reform a referendum on the current government. Which is precisely what labour unions leaders are aiming to do. Should the succeed, the pension reform would be as good as dead, especially with the government’s popularity points being at an all-time low, barely reaching mid-20s.

So it seems (and I am being cynical here) that plan B, which is being implemented just in case, is to make the people vent as much anger as possible before the referendum on pension reform comes up and possibly make proponents of the referendum look bad for wanting the referendum in the first place. Case in point being the referendum on RTV Slovenia which PM Pahor basically fore-fitted and left minister of culture Majda Širca to fight her own battle. The same might very well go for the referendum on law on menial work, especially since both referendums will – should the proponents collect the necessary signatures – be probably held only a week apart, with a vote on menial work first and pension reform second, by which time the voters just might have vented enough. Combined with an effective PR onslaught the government might just barely make it.

So, this looks like plan B (if it exists at all, that is). What’s plan A? Not having a referendum in the first place.

Namely, the government has asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the referendum on pension reform is constitutional in the first place. The argument goes along the line of pension reform being necessary if Article 50 of the Constitution (the right to social security). In other words, if the pension reform is nixed on the referendum, then the state cannot fulfil its welfare role any longer, hence an unconstitutional situation would occur. Additionally, the state will also try to argue that the pension reform is a question of state budged, as the law on referendums prevents holding a referendum on several issues, one of them being the budget.

Obviously the unions will claim the above is not worth a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys, despite the fact that they will be told that the government increased the minimum wage when crisis struck for real and that it should be the unions who should compromise this time around.

Can the government pull it off? Unknown. This will be a landmark decision by the Constitutional court. Should it side with the government, this will really take the wind out of unions’ sails and pave the way for a speedy adoption of the rest of the reform package (or whatever is left of it). On the other hand, should the court deny the government and the referendum goes fort, then the government is back to plan B (insofar it even exists) and then hope that people will vote against their instincts and support the pension reform.

And while we’re on the issue, many people – including some whose opinion pengovsky values – think that the reform, such as it was passed is not really a reform. Which is probably true. What we have here is a very watered down version of the original proposal which probably ensures solvency of the pension fund for the next decade or so (that’s two-and-a-half terms) and then the whole thing will start all over again. But maybe combined with everything else, this might give this country just enough of a kick to eschew falling down. Whether this will be enough to break the gravity pull and go for the stars? Well, things and projects are brewing, but they have little to do with welfare state. That’s more of a innovation thing.

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Referendum On The Law On Menial Work: A Case Of Assisted Suicide

As of yesterday the Student organisation of Slovenia is collecting 40 000 signatures needed to hold a referendum on the recently passed Law on Menial Work. Yes, another referendum is looming, the second in as many months and god-knows-which in the entire history of this country. This is the same law that sent students (and pupils) to streets on 19 May last year and produced the final proof that on the whole they are a bunch of irresponsible brats who generally can’t tell their ass-hole from from their ear-hole. Case in point being the said referendum which is a) un-fucking-believable and b) stupid.


Student protests gone sour in May 2010 (source: the Firm™)

Starting with a) I’m amazed at how leaders of the student organisation have the balls to do anything but sit quietly in the corner and do as they’re told. I mean, whatever clout they had with the “grown-up” politics and the general public, they’ve lost it last May as far as I’m concerned. There you have an organisation and its various branches and dependencies with combined yearly budgets of about 16 million euro (no, it’s not a mistake), there’s no real oversight and almost zero consequences in case of any wrongdoing. But then a demo goes bad and rather than trying to contain the situation they split the scene and blame everyone else. So much for responsibility and cojones. And yet, once the dust is settled and miraculously no one is even forced to resign (let alone charged with endangering public safety or something like that) those very same people go for a referendum? What is this? Some kind of a Vaudeville act?

But it does not stop there. Not only is this latest referendum bid (while perfectly legal) very dicey from an ethical point of view. It is also b) one of the more shining examples of shooting oneself in the knee we’ve witnessed in the past year or so. And with that in mind it is little wonder that the student organisation enlisted help of labour unions. Hey, why fuck yourself when you can get ass-rammed by others and be treated to a dirty sanchez.

Namely: The law on menial work (malo delo, link in Slovene only) will largely overhaul student work in Slovenia which has in recent years become more or less the only form of employing young people, especially in the private sector. The problem, which soon became common to tens of thousands of young people was, that despite having worked more or less full time for years on end, this did not officially count as experience, nor did it add towards their retirement age. Since the state paid for student’s social security, the pension fund was none better off and therefore student officially had zero years of working experience. And since most companies required at lest a couple of years’ experience even for entry-level jobs, you can see where this leads to: one big vicious circle, where young people can’t get a job, as a result can’t get regular income, as a result of that they can’t get a loan with the bank and are thus unable to gain any firm footing of their own, creating the unhealthy environment of ever longer stays at mama-hotels.

That labour unions are assisting the student organisation in their self-destructive enterprise is a deviously Machiavellian act which is aimed at maintaining the status quo, i.e.: keeping the students at bay, obstructing their entry into the real labour market as much as possible. In other words – while the student organisation is committing suicide on the students’ behalf, the labour unions are happily assisting. Though it may seem otherwise, students have no representative in this is debate. The only one who possibly cares for their interest is the government with this law, but one shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of random act of human kindness. The law is a necessary element of shaking up the labour market and benefits it brings to the students are only a side-product of a larger enterprise.

What we have here is a situation where labour unions have long stopped representing “class interest” and are now only representatives of an ever-thinning group of people who want to retire as soon as possible, not caring about successive generations. Student organisations are also keen on keeping the status quo, primarily to maintain a cosy source of financing via “student agencies”, employment agencies dedicated exclusively to students, where they took a cut from every student’s income for “providing him/her with work”. If anyone is creating added value in this country, it is the high-skilled low-wage workforce (mostly students) but they are cannot expect any mid- or long-term rewards, thus only exasperating the problem of ever worse social security. But no one is speaking on their behalf, although everyone pretends to.

This is not an ideal law. Should it be enacted, the students will face increased job competition, because the unemployed and pensioners will compete for jobs previously held exclusively by students. However, the upside is that now the time spent working will count towards everyone’s pensions and work experience, students included. Furthermore, there will be no need to artificially extend student status (as was the accepted practice for the last twenty years) in order to be able to get work through “student agencies”, thus possibly radically reducing the amount of time people spend at the university. Right now it takes people seven-to-eight years on average to graduate in what is usually a four-to-five-year course.

So in general, students will be better of in mid- and long-term while they will quite probably be able to compensate short-term drawbacks by being better educated and more flexible than the competition of unemployed 45-year-olds or retired 65-year-olds, not to mention the fact that students probably wouldn’t touch the old farts’ jobs with a ten-foot pole in the first place.

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The Mother Of All Referendums (Slovenia Twenty Years After)

Twenty years ago on this day Slovenes voted on a referendum on independence. The question on 23 December 1990 was straightforward: Should Slovenia become a sovereign and independent country. The decision, as we know, was also fairly straightforward. With record voter turnout (93,5%) as much as 88,5% of all voters voted in favour on what will turn out to be the mother of all Slovenian referendum.


Official Gazette of Republic of Slovenia publishes the law on referendum on independence (source)

Twenty years later the situation seems all but hopeless. The crisis is in full swing, politics and politicians have virtually no credibility left and referendums are a-dime-a-dozen. In the words of the Charlie Watts quartet: You can’t always get what you want.

But really, is it that bad? On one hand, yes. I’m sure people would vote “no” in 1990 if the question would be something along the lines of “Do you want Slovenia to become a country of ever increasing social inequality, political bickering and a seemingly endless supply of either real or perceived scandals and corruption)”.

On the other hand, things are not that bad. I mean, they’re not that bad if one looks at them from the standpoint of 1990s. The issues we are faced with today are nothing compared to the issues Slovenia was facing back then. Twenty years ago it was about survival. It was about whether the nation can make a right choice collectively and hoping that this choice will be proven to have been right some time in the distant future. Today we can, regardless of the despair and dejectedness a lot of people are facing, say that the choice was right. And although – with the power of hindsight – it looks today that it was the only logical choice, that was not the case. It could all have ended very very badly. But it didn’t. Thankfully.

Anniversaries are a welcome interruption to our daily routine and they often remind us that there are issues bigger than our daily problems. That anniversaries are often used or misused to promote a particular political goal is regretful but no-one will get killed over it. That myths are being constructed is also just a sad fact. That Slovenia will today witness not one, but two celebrations – one official organised by the governement of Borut Pahor, the other one organised by Janez Janša and people who claim they represent “the true values” of Slovene independence is a curious fact which serves some immediate political purpose of the opposition, but nothing beyond that.

Because (as the good doctor often says), what everyone keeps forgetting is that there would be no independence without the people of this country, who bit the bullet and leapt into the unknown. That a selected group of individuals today claims exclusive rights to interpretation of events around 23 December 2010 is demeaning to this nation.

Independence today is what we make of it, for better or for worse. Reminding us “what it was all about” helps, but only to the point where it saves us from making the same mistake over and over. Anything beyond that is counter-productive. And there seems to be a lot of that going around lately. And in times of crisis one shuns what is not helpful 😀

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De Referenda

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

In the wake of the fiasco that was the referendum on RTV Slovenia, both the ruling coalition as well as the opposition are (again) mulling changes to referendum legislation. This was of course expected but it is none the less a most unwelcome turn of events, especially since constant abuses of referendum legislation in the minds of what seems to be majority of the voters now warrant limiting legal possibilities for holding a referendum.

There are broadly three sets of proposals in this debate. What (hopefully) follows is their deconstruction.

Set a referendum day

Proposed by Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) of Janez Janša. What the largest opposition party proposes is that a specific day in the year be set by law in advance and on that day any and all referendums which were called early enough in the year are to be held. On the surface, the proposal is quite appealing: no matter how many referendums are called, all the votes are held on the same date and instead of spending four million euro per referendum, you spend four million once and be done with it.

However, there is a huge – and I mean galactic – caveat. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the referendum date would be set on 1 June and the decision to hold a referendum would have to come no later than 30 May, because a month of campaigning has to be allowed for. Technically this means that any law passed after 30 May on which a referendum is to be held, will be “on ice” for up to thirteen months. If there ever was a neat way to temporarily block a law, this is it.

As we know, calling a referendum is a piece of cake in Slovenia, especially if you’re a political party which can muster 30 signatures in the parliament. This was was the case with almost every referendum ever held in Slovenia, be they consultative or subsequent (legislative). If the proposed provision were to be enacted, a law – no matter how urgent or crucial or just plain practical – could be blocked out of sheer politicking just by collecting the necessary signatures. Add to that the fact that by the time the referendum will be held the debate on the issue will have died long ago ans with it all the niceties connected with either “yes” or “no” vote, and you get a situation where the electorate is even less informed about the issue once it actually comes up for a vote and – even more – has to vote on multiple issues at the same time.

Indeed, one can easily argue that the idea of a single referendum day (or even two) per year in fact decreases democratic standards in Slovenia which are not all that high to begin with. Furthermore: although the idea was floated by the largest opposition party it is a given that – despite being prone to losing crucial battles – SDS will in time again be the ruling party in Slovenia. When that happens, such a provision on referendum would work very much against them, especially if they would be still given to radically altering legislation across the board. Actually, pengovsky refuses to believe that SDS leadership is as short-sighted as not to see that and that the entire idea is simply a red herring or a tactical move which – after it will be rejected by the parliament – will enable them to claim that they tried to do something

Set a quorum necessary for validity of referendum

We’ve been over this already in some other setting. But the bottom line is this: if a vote is called and majority of people don’t bother to show up, how can it be that their decision to stay at home has more merit than decision of the minority (no matter how small) which decided to exercise their right to vote? Seriously, people…

Revoke the 30 MP signatures provision

Floated by the ruling left-wing coalition – notably Social Democrats led by PM Borut Pahor – the idea sounds, well, tempting. No doubt a lot of people would see it as taking candy from a spoiled brat. But not really. You see, the “30 signatures” provision is in the constitution for a reason. It is an essential element of a system of checks-and-balances. It provides the parliamentary minority with an instrument to prevent what de Tocqueville and Mills called “tyranny of the majority”. Because not all decisions are good or sensible, even though the majority voted in favour. So the provision goes beyond it’s current use as a political weapon of legal destruction.

Yes, the provision was abused many times under circumstances that -although perfectly legal – didn’t really warrant invoking it. But the parties currently running the show will inevitably come into a situation where they will be glad that the provision is in place. Even more: Slovenia may come into a situation where a question, vital to the future of the republic will be decided on and the only voice of reason will be a small, across-the-isle ad hoc coalition with the “30 signatures” provision being their only hope of preventing a decision of disastrous consequences.

And if you think this is a purely hypothetical scenario, think again. We saw that film a couple of times already. Or at least variations of it. In pengovsky’s opinion, the “30 signatures” provision was and is intended to be used in extreme cases. That it was abused doesn’t mean that it has to be abolished.

What to do?

Nothing. Direct democracy and checks-and-balances are not things you tamper with in a heat of a moment. Besides, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with current referendum legislation. It’s just that it is being abused beyond any sense of decency. But that is not a question of legislation but rather a question of political culture.

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Referendum on RTV Slovenia: A Night To Forget

The final tally of Sunday referendum on the law on RTVSLO was disastrous, to say the least. The law was nixed with 72.64 percent votes against and only 27.36 percent in favour, with a criminally low voter turnout. The counter of voters attending the referendum stopped at 250 079 or only 14.56 percent. The good doctor rightly called it a fiasco. While the inevitable battle for interpretation of results ensued immediately, there are things that should not be overlooked.


(source: The Firm™)

Bottom line is that the law was quashed, meaning that the existing law on RTVSLO, crafted by SDS’ very own chief bulldog Branko Grims remains in effect. The coalition lost this round decisively and without reprieve. Well, without immediate reprieve, at least. Legislation stipulates that following a referendum, no change to a particular law can be attempted for a year. With PM Pahor’s government popularity points hitting the low end of the twenties, the defeat only reiterates what the opinion polls say. Furthermore, this is also major policy defeat for the coalition which put revamping of the law and limiting political influence over the institution high on its agenda.

Carte blanche

Rejection of the law threatens to open a Pandora’s box of pressure being brought to bear on RTVSLO once again. The existing law allows for it and the referendum result now gives the ruling coalition almost a carte blanche to shape the institution according to its own image, just as Janša’s government did after the 2007 referendum on the same issue (when the current law was confirmed). An overwhelming majority of members of Programming and Supervisory boards will still be appointed by the parliamentary majority. This means it is up to good will of politicians to decide whether board members will be people who know what TV and radio are, or people who will more or less faithfully follow party directives. And being dependant on good will of politicians is never a good thing. RTVSLO thus remains a state media and is eons away from becoming public.

However. While resounding, the defeat is not catastrophe for the coalition. Immediately after declaring victory, Janez Janša and his SDS called for Minister of Culture Majda Širca to resign. This was later (predictably) expanded to a claim that the entire government led by Borut Pahor should resign, since they are wasting time on trivial matters, such as the new law. Following government resignation, sayeth the SDS, early election should be called.

Same old, same old

Pengovsky will not go again over why it is next to impossible to call early elections in Slovenia. But constant calls for early elections are becoming really old really fast and only prove that SDS in fact has no serious alternative on how to handle the general situation Slovenia is in right now other than the fact that it is them who should be in power.

Which brings to the next issue at hand. Despite clinching a victory, the SDS can be far from happy. Having thrown shitload of mud in the general direction of Pahor’s government and in the specific direction of minister Širca, despite trying hard to galvanise the vote, less than 15 percent of people showed up at the voting booth and of that less than three quarters voted in line with SDS’ position (a no vote). Even if we assume that everyone who voted against is a SDS supporter (which is not the case), this means that the die-hard base of Janša’s party ammounts to less than 12 percent of Slovene voters. While still a number to be reckoned with, this shows a marked decline in both power and reach of SDS, which – this must be said – is leading the opinion polls for some time now.

So, in purely political terms the winner of the referendum battle is the SDS (or the opposition in general), but in the wider perspective both the coalition and the opposition will want to forget the episode as soon as possible.

Dangers ahead

As written above, the immediate result of the referendum is that RTVSLO remains state rather than public media. But bad news don’t stop here. Since it is obvious that – while legal – the referendum was (ab)used for specific political purposes and that the majority of voters (for one reason or another) wanted to have nothing to do with it, calls for revamping of the referendum legislation are becoming increasingly loud, again especially from the left side of the political spectrum. Indeed, a recent poll showed that were the government call a “referendum on a referendum”, a large majority of people would a) vote and b) vote in favour of restricting possibilities to call a referendum.

Appealing as it may sound, such a move would quite probably be a start of a very bad journey.

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